[18 February 2010]
There was a time when it seemed Field Music might not release a third album. Instead, they’ve made two. Shortly after the release of 2007’s Tones of Town, their deliciously lush and charmingly askew sophomore LP, the band made a hasty retreat from the critical community’s newly open arms, aiming a brilliantly contemptuous parting gibe at their own music by way of explanation: “It just makes us sick”. Two years and two solo projects later and the brothers Brewis have apparently had enough fresh air to sweep away that queasiness and any lingering midwinter sniffles besides. The band’s second self-titled release, parenthetically subtitled to distinguish it from their debut, is a fully-fledged, 20-song double-album—not the kind of venture you would want to embark on when you can’t stand the sound of your own voice.
Field Music (Measure), though, is the product of a love rediscovered. If recent interviews are anything to go by, certainly, the period their focal project spent on ice saw David and Peter Brewis’ combined mindset transmute from one of frustration with perceived constraints to an ambitiously optimistic recognition of their own creative potentiality. “The possibilities of what we could get away with as Field Music were actually much bigger than we thought”, the former told one music website last month. And no doubt it is the cumulative psychological effect of historical precedents—Tusk, Sign o’ the Times, The Wall, and a certain economically-sleeved cultural phenomenon to name a handful—but we anticipate from double albums more than just twice the running time, twice the bulk. They are, tradition would have it, the sign of something grander; a broadening of scope or ambition that breeds in musicians the belief that the world needs to hear every second of their two hours of music, not just the choicest cuts. In this way, the double album is almost an anachronistic concept in the 21st century. In an era where it is almost unthinkable for a record to be released without being available somewhere, in full or in part, to be test-driven before purchase, and where successful bands turn to downloadable singles as the primary mode of airing their art, the double album is an affirmation of the album itself as an entity.
What makes the format favoured for Measure so surprising, though, is that Field Music have always opted for concision. Less surprising, somehow, is that, second disc or no second disc, they still frequently do so here. In fact, Measure‘s first half is the real eye-widener for the simple reason that it defies your expectations in the very act of reverting (or should that be sticking) to type. For all the preconceptions that might be dreamt up due to the manner of this release, Field Music’s terminated hiatus and any accompanying proclamations, Measure is for the most part compact, brusque, choppy, and brimful of interweaving, joyful melodies. There is the occasional curve ball thrown in: first track “In the Mirror”‘s forbidding overtures are prolonged across an oppressive four minutes of strangled guitars and worrying vocal harmonies; “Let’s Write a Book” offers juddering bass and funky falsetto and wah-wah; and first set closer, the gorgeous and ponderous “You and I”, is Field Music at their most solemn and minimal.
In, amongst and between all, however, there is much to be familiar with. The lushly melodic “Them That Do Nothing” and the title track’s finicky guitar playing, in particular, are both Field Music largely as was (and if you’ve heard Tones of Town, you’ll not take this as a slight.) Thing is, it’s all relative—the Brewis brothers have always been pretty unpredictable, to the extent that when their sophomore’s “Sight Tit” melts into a melancholy beatboxing breakdown, it doesn’t seem the least bit zany. Part of the expectation with Field Music is the lack of expectation. Their experimentalism is not one of form or even instrumentation; it’s that of execution, still within their familiar, confined spaces. Put simply, even on a twenty-song double album, you’ll find nothing more or less than pop perfection.
It is Measure‘s latter half that more often threatens to stray from this path. If we are to take this second disc as suggestive of the future, then a whole lot more sonic sightseeing could be on the itinerary of album number four. Of its ten tracks, there are a number that could authentically be pegged as proggy, in the traditional sense of the world. The most exploratory of these are “The Rest of Noise”, with its ripples of piano and tangential guitar soloing, and the “Curves of the Needle”‘s quietly climactic harmonies, subtly redolent of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Just as Tones of Town seemed to toy with paradoxes, forever straining to achieve thematic and instrumental complexity only to boil them down to simpler forms, Measure appears to see scale as a plaything. Almost every track could on different hands have been stretched out and elaborated on, and the record frequently hints at the big and the audacious. Instead, it’s pulled off with the sort of busy insouciance that suggests Field Music neither care for or have time for that sort of thing. It is a record bulging with ideas, yet every one is shrunk down to miniature and promptly done away with to allow for the next. Really, just as you’d expect from Field Music.
And that’s exactly it. Measure, for all the exploratory inclinations of its second half, in spite of its unexpected format and regardless of any prospective, pointed-at directions, is unmistakably, definitively and defiantly Field Music. And it’s to the Brewises’ credit that you can say that—that, despite their temporary disbandment, their willingness to experiment and the reliability with which they are bracketed into a North-East England “scene” alongside the Futureheads and Maximo Park, Field Music have crafted for themselves a unique and recognisable sonic identity. It is, as Radiohead are forever reminding us, a great band who can reinvent themselves and yet remain the same. Measure achieves just that.